The 12-4-2-2 Oklahoma City Barons battle the 9-8-2-0 Grand Rapids Griffins on their first trip to the North of the season. For Oklahoma City the game means they can gain a few points in the standings, and potentially a stranglehold on the top spot in the West Division while also gaining ground in the entirety of the Western Conference.
Not long ago it was the Griffins that defeated the Barons in the Western Conference Final (amid some tornadic activity, literally) to become the best team in the American Hockey League. Since that time the teams have played only a handful of times, but the competition has remained high.
Toting a goaltender that shoulders a lot of the burden, Tom McCollum is starting to pave the way for the Griffins to become a better squad. 6-3-0-1 in their last ten games points to a team that is finally starting to come around despite a recent loss to Toronto where the Marlies crushed GR in the final twenty minutes of play.
But they are on the up, and that conjures up fear in the heart of this Barons fan, even with the fantastic nature of play in recent days. Grand Rapids plays Oklahoma City well. There is no denying that.
The offensive world of the Grand Rapids Griffins revolves around three key players – Teemu Pulkkinen, Andy Miele, and Mitch Callahan. 23 / 16 / 16 points for those three with Pulkikinen second in the league in scoring, and Miele driving an insane +30 shooting percentage. They can score some goals on this squad, but it seems they have another secret weapon.
Penalty killing can be an art form, and the Griffins paint with a broad stroke. Sure they are one of the least penalized teams in the Western Conference, but when they do suffer a penalty they are quick to kill it. Any advantage that team’s might have over them on the power play is potentially squashed on a regular basis. Several weeks ago this might have been bothersome to the Barons, but with the cooling down of their power play just a bit, they will need to work extra hard to find offense with an extra attacker.
The other potential wrinkle to the play of the Griffs is first period scoring. They win a lot of their games in the first period, which means teams need to come out challenging every possible angle. Goaltenders like Brossoit and Bachman will need to be on point from the first drop of the puck.
After a five game home winless streak through October and November, the Griffins have won their last four at home. The promise of “battening down the hatches” has paid off, and the team has been a much better squad at home in recent weeks. They’ll look to better than number tonight.
Defensively they have some cracks, and are prone to an occasional odd man rush. They also have a tendency to be awkward in their own zone, especially in clogging up passing and shooting lanes which forces some pretty high shots against.
Oklahoma City will look to Curtis Hamilton, Iiro Pakarinen, Anton Lander, and of course leading scoring, Jason Williams to provide offense. Yet in the bottom six of the forward group is where the battles will be won. Travis Ewanyk, Kale Kessy, Jujhar Khaira, etc. will be tasked with challenging the GRG top trio which will be a tough job. They have proven they are an agile group that is more skill than gruff, and that might force the top two lines of the Griffins to play a more careful game.
Richard Bachman and Laurent Brossoit will probably go one two this weekend with both flip flopping in the second game in Milwaukee. Both have been very good with Brossoit closing the gap on Bachman in the stats department.
Kellan Lain has been quiet since joining the Barons, and was subject to the healthy scratch rotation only a game ago. He needs some kind of awakening game to get the organizations attention. Likewise, recently called upon Bakersfield Condor, Josh Winquist could make a name for himself in a game against Grand Rapids. After rookie camp and main camp injuries this offseason, WInquist remains an unknown commodity for the most part, and the call-up might just be a display case for his trophy of skills.
The game is a 6:00pm Central Time puck drop, so eat an early dinner. Go Barons!